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Merchants build trust


Korean immigrants Soon Jae and Eun Ja Lee are rare inner-city merchants: Their West Baltimore corner store is no Plexiglas-walled fortress, but an old-fashioned grocery whose customers shop from well-stocked shelves.

In a city where Korean merchants frequently feel unsafe and their black customers often complain of high prices and rude treatment, the Lees are doubly unusual.

Their store's open layout reflects a trusting relationship with the poor, black neighborhood they serve.

The Lees, who speak halting English, have done business at the same corner in Sandtown-Winchester since 1978. They have employed two neighborhood men for years. They extend credit to selected customers. And they give generously, be it a few cases of soda for a block party or 200 turkey dinners at Christmas.

On weekday afternoons, Mr. Lee, 60, a balding man with a broad smile, hands free Slim Jims to school children heading home via the store at Gilmor Street and Riggs Avenue. Late every month, when some residents have exhausted the month's food stamp allotment, he gives out bags of groceries. Over the holidays, he distributes food baskets to needy families.

"Mr. Lee just has a caring commitment to people," said Loretta Smith, who runs a neighborhood food pantry. "Even though he's Korean, I don't look at him as Korean but as just another person who cares about the community."

Three years ago, the Sandtown-Winchester merchant formalized his giving. He formed Good Samaritan Works Inc., a charity that handed out about $14,000 worth of food last year.

"It has nothing to do with business at all," said Mr. Lee, a devout Christian who is a lay pastor. "I'm not really giving to them; I'm receiving something back from them. You're supposed to give love away, not supposed to expect it back. I don't care what other people say, good or bad, as long as God sees I'm doing my work."

Of course, tensions between Korean merchants and black residents aren't exclusive to Baltimore.

In the 1992 Los Angeles riots, hundreds of Korean-American businesses were damaged or destroyed. In New York, African-American groups have led boycotts of Korean stores.

Korean shopkeepers and black residents in Sandtown -- south and west of North and Pennsylvania avenues -- typically have an "uneasy coexistence," said Allan Tibbels, executive director of Sandtown Habitat for Humanity.

"The stores for the most part are very secured: Plexiglased, very impersonal. There's an apartness, an aloofness."

The Lees have an enviable rapport with their clientele. Working 70-hour weeks catering to a stream of shoppers has earned the couple a comfortable suburban home. A Plexiglas cashier's area is their nod to the dangers of doing business.

Valerie Perkins, a hospital employee who grew up in Sandtown and now lives near Glen Burnie, gave Mr. Lee a big hug on a recent visit to her old neighborhood.

"He's a wonderful guy," she said. "Many days I came in the store short of money, and he would tell me to bring it back later. He knows when to say no. But he's a very caring person. If he can help you, he will."

Jai P. Ryu, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's Korean liaison, said Mr. Lee is "a model for good relations with the community. In the Korean expression, his heart is as pure as a clear lake."

Darius "George" Hall, 25, started working for the Lees as a teen-ager. This month Mr. Hall ran unsuccessfully for City Council. He credits Mr. Lee with giving him a chance.

"I could've been out on the corner selling drugs," he said.

"Of my friends, the majority of them are locked up, or strung out on drugs, or selling drugs, or laid to rest in the cemetery."

Mr. Lee said he helps Sandtown's needy because "Christ likes hungry people."

Mr. Lee was poor himself, the leader of a gang of South Korean urchins who sold rice cakes to get by. Since coming to Baltimore, he has raised thousands of dollars to support Korean orphans.

Born in what is now North Korea, where he received a fourth-grade education, Mr. Lee was 12 when his family escaped Communist rule by walking south.

Two years later, after his mother died, he left home for good. At 17, he joined a South Korean special forces unit Dr. Ryu likened to "the Foreign Legion -- orphans, abandoned people."

"If they dropped dead, there was no one there to miss them," Dr. Ryu said.

During the Korean War, Mr. Lee parachuted behind enemy lines into North Korea.

The young army veteran later became a driver for a big steel company, became a Christian and met his future wife, then a nurse.

They were married in 1970 and immigrated to the United States in 1974, seeking a better life for their family.

Their son Sang, 23, a graduate student at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, was born in Korea. Their daughter Lesley, 21, a Towson State University student, was born in Maryland.

"We came from Korea with no money, no house," said Mrs. Lee, 53. "We couldn't speak English."

By 1977, after working as a painter, Mr. Lee had saved enough to open a store in Upton. But the couple was robbed at gunpoint four times in 14 months, pulled out and came to Sandtown. They have been there ever since.

"No problem," said Mr. Lee, repeating a phrase that is almost a mantra. "God watches us."

Religion has become the dominant force in his life. He was a founder of the nondenominational Korean American Church of the Philippi in Columbia. He also belongs to the St. Luke United Methodist Church in Sandtown.

The Lees are puzzled and pained by the poverty around them. Sandtown needs jobs, Mr. Lee said. He believes that work is healthy and welfare destroys people's self-respect.

Sitting on a makeshift bed atop milk crates in a storeroom one afternoon, Mrs. Lee reflected on the faces she had seen that day -- and broke into tears.

"Nobody's working," she said. "We help every day, but there's too much drugs, a lot of trouble. I'm crying every day. I'm praying every day. Every day we pray to Jesus to help, please."

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